Circle then talk: Try this fail-proof first draft reading technique

Writing has drafts. And reading has drafts, too, but that’s easier to forget. Today, I want to explain the “circle then talk” technique for first draft reading.

First, why should we make a first draft reading activity “fail-proof” for students?

When we teach a text, we’ve already read it a half a dozen times, and we may have taught it a few times already, too. On the other hand, students stop by our class as one part of a busy day. They haven’t reviewed, planned, and re-read this text. That’s an important consideration when we do whole class reading lessons. For most purposes, multi-draft readings will help students.

And first drafts in reading are just like first drafts in writing. They are a sloppy attempt at making meaning.

So how can we make interactions that students have with a text or an author more meaningful? Well, first I’d like to make it “fail proof.”  No, that’s not just a good phrase for a headline.  I want students to build momentum with their first draft reading, as they would with a free write or quick write. Make progress, see visible work done, avoid unnecessary frustration.

Some might suggest that it sounds as if I want students to avoid struggle with this fail-proof first draft idea. This is not the case, though. Alternatively, I think I can eventually push students to work harder and think more deeply about their reading and writing if they have some momentum behind them.

For the sake of example, consider this: You’ve had that student who hits a wall, right? Present him with a task that feels too hard, and he doesn’t move a finger.  But, get him started on a task that engages him, and he has much more potential.

The “fail proof” idea is to get kids over that initial hurdle, so they never hit a wall. Lots of structural metaphors here, bear with me.

Now, onto the first step in reading, which I suggest is the development of a literal understanding of the text. The common way to demonstrate this literal understanding is summarizing.

A fail-proof approach for text summary:

Here it goes:

Read the text aloud. As they listen, students circle three phrases that stand out to them. Then, ask them to turn and talk to partner. The catch? They need to deliberately use those three phrases in their explanation of the excerpt. Follow-up with small group discussions and a whole-class review. Record the shared phrases on the board.

Why does this work? When it’s time to talk, students already have text evidence that I can ask them to refer to during the discussion. Questions like “Did anyone else circle that part?” Or “Who found something similar?” Can help to generate a discussion where students are building off of each other’s ideas.

This approach is “fail-proof” because nearly all students can circle words and phrases on the text. This removes the barrier to entry, the activation energy, the friction in the first task. Consider how asking students to summarize a challenging text might leave a third of the students in class with little idea as to how to begin. But this “circle then talk” idea gets those kids started. Even if these students can’t perfectly explain the text to their partner, they have had a chance to revisit the language of the passage, and attempt to use that language as a way of making meaning. Additionally, they get a chance to hear their partner, who may have a better understanding, talk about the text and use its language.

A fail proof approach for text analysis

Of course, many teachers expect students to go beyond literal understandings of a text and into the more nuanced meanings. This is what I want for my students, too. However, present an analysis task in the wrong way to readers who are not adequately prepared or confident, and we will probably still be stuck at that first draft level.

The very complex approach for fail-proof analysis is…

Compare two excerpts from the same author.


Yes, that’s it.  Print out another excerpt, another poem, another chapter, by the same author and place it next to the piece that the students read for their fail-proof first draft reading. Now, read this passage aloud and ask students to listen for the moments when they hear or see something that reminds students of the stuff they circled in their first draft reading. Maybe it’s similar vocabulary. Maybe it’s the same use of white space or punctuation. Maybe it’s the same repetition or another rhetorical device. Maybe it’s something that students notice, but they don’t have name for.

Here’s an image of Kristen Letcchau’s notes from my work shop on teaching The Book, The Reading, and The Reader at the College of New Jersey in August (learn more about that here):


Notice how Kirsten has used cirlces to notice key phrases in two different passages of The House on Mango Street, then used arrows to connect passages that she found similar.

After selecting text, again kids can talk about their selections. You might say: Explain the similarities in these annotations, and explain why the writer might be doing these things over and over. Now students are idiscussing the writer’s craft and decision making.

The follow-up tasks can ask students to:

  • Explain in writing, with examples, why the author makes particular decisions
  • Analyze the effects that these craft moves have on them as they read
  • Emulate these craft moves in their own writing

I like to combine this fail-proof approach with cold calling because I know that all students can circle words on the page. After that, they can make a variety of comments, simply sharing the excerpt, explaining it in their own words or demonstrating some higher order thinking by talking about the intentions of the author.

How do I teach this text? A three-part model

Content, craft, and conventions are my 3 Cs for teaching a text.

Content: what it says

Content is what the text says. The story. The facts, The argument. If we’re reading an excerpt from The Catcher in the Rye, the content is about Holden wrestling with his existential crisis. If we’re examining a chart, it’s the title, the headings, the axes, and the data. If we’re studying an editorial, it’s the writer’s argument.

Teaching students to grasp and wrestle with the content in a text is a way of leading them into a text-based speaking event or no opt-out reading assessment. We need students to understand the story, the facts, and the argument of a text in order for them to do deep thinking about it.

Content questions/prompts:

  • How did the character change over the course of the text?
  • Underline examples of anecdotal evidence used by the writer
  • What do you notice about the way the data changes over time?

Craft: how it’s made

Craft is the set of decisions made by the creator of a text.  Studying craft promotes higher-order thinking because it requires analyzing implications of aspects of the text. It is the design of the chart and how that serves the creator’s purpose. It is the use of extended metaphor in a poem. It is the daring use of diction in Leonard Pitts’s best editorials. In order for students to understand the decisions that writers make, and therefore get better at their own decisions, students should learn the craft of the text.

Craft questions/prompts:

  • How did the design of the chart help/hinder your understanding of the data?
  • Circle three examples of the writer’s voice
  • Emulate the poet’s use of extended metaphor in your own original poem

Conventions: why it’s right (or wrong)

And then there are the conventions of a text. How a newspaper article or thank-you note (thanks, Casey) is formatted. Where to put the commas. How to label a pie chart. These are a set of rules that good writers deliberately follow or intentionally break.

Conventions questions/prompts:

  • What are the three ways that the essayist uses a colon?
  • Identify the run-on sentence used by the author. Why did she choose to do that?
  • How does the format of a news article differ from the format of an essay you’d write for English? Why do you think these differences exist?

Of course, all three of these bleed together.

In order for students to understand the nuance of a writer’s argument, they should best understand how the writer has crafted that argument. And to understand the rules that the writer is expertly breaking to make that argument so convincing, they have to understand those rules in the first place–and that’s conventions.

The best texts that we choose will be rich in opportunities for teaching content, craft, and conventions. And the deepest speaking and writing that we inspire from students will probably mention all three at some point, too.

Why I want to point out the content, craft, and conventions model

I notice that becoming aware of this distinction of content, craft, and conventions helps me to sometimes use the same text to teach lessons across multiple classes.

Returning to the example of the editorial, I might be able to take a first amendment editorial and teach it to my Humanities 10 class to discuss the Constitution. Then, I may be able to compare that same argument to the students’ thoughts about Shirely Jackson’s “The Lottery,” and finally use the writer’s craft for a revision lesson later in the unit.

When we have so much work to do and so little time to do it, it is helpful to have frameworks around which we can organize our thinking, our planning, and our gathering of curricular resources. Content, craft, and conventions is one of those.

How do you plan text-based lessons? What texts can you use with any class?

How to move students forward with the “reverse lesson” approach to 1-1 conferences


A conference is a lesson in reverse. If you don’t quite get me yet, catch the conversation I recall from last school year at the end of this post.

In a typical lesson, we begin with a hook. This typically relates to the topic or content to the kids. It might relate to the objective for the class.  It might be some way to get kids moving, thinking, speaking, writing, or reading. It’s a way to pull the kids into the action of learning.  Teach Like a Pirate is  a book with many great hooks. Hacking Engagement (and the follow-up) collectively contain 100 ideas for hooking students into a lesson. There are many approaches if you’re willing to look into them. 

Then, we instruct. We might do a reading lesson on a specific skill. We might have a read aloud. Or, there might be some sort of speaking event for the kids. This is the part that we typically think of when we hear teaching.

Lastly, we assess learning. Of course, this happens throughout class. However, classes often end with a formal assessment. This might be an exit ticket. It might be a specific question to discuss. It might be some piece of an essay that kids turn in for review.

Notice that this structure works well for a large group. Part of the reason it works is that we have to get everyone on the same page for learning to begin. We need the majority of students to be doing what we’re asking them to do, to buy-in to our lesson, in order for it to work. So, it makes sense to begin with the hook.

Then, we instruct after we have this buy-in.

And the assessment at the end is important because it informs everything that happens next. The results of this assessment often go in a grade book. The data is used to plan tomorrow’s lesson, or even how the teacher will change the lesson for the afternoon’s class. We want to know what students know and can do before they leave for the day.

When I confer with kids, I switch this format. Hook, instruct, assess becomes assess, instruct, and hook.

I can best illustrate it with an example. There’s a conference I have on video from last year that I refer to in workshops for teachers. Ryan and I sat down to confer about his independent reading book in the spring of last year.  Here’s how it went:

Assessment — How is Ryan doing and how can I help him? Am I focusing on the book, the reading, or the reader here?

(I’m D, Ryan is R.)

D: How’s it going?

R: Not bad.

D: Ok, good good. What part of the book are you up to?

R: I’m kind of at the beginning parts.

[This comment gave me a hint that he hasn’t done much reading so far. It was the uncertainty of “beginning parts” that tipped me off in retrospect.]

Instruction — What can we say or do right now so Ryan moves forward?

D: Ok, I understand. A little bit busy lately?

R: Yea.

D: Alright, so where’s your book?

R: I don’t have it with me. It’s by my bed.

D: Ok, well that’s great that you’ve been bringing it home. And you know what, I can totally relate. I’m someone who gets really wrapped up in his own thoughts. And that makes me super forgetful. So, when I have to remember something, I literally put it right in front of my front door. Or, I put my cell phone on top of it. Which one of those could you could try?

R: I think I could try…with the phone.

D: Ok, great. Put a reminder in your phone right now to leave your book next to your phone for next class.

R: Ok.

Hook — How can I send Ryan back to his seat ready to keep working?

D: Let’s go take a look at the bookshelf. There are a couple of books, like comedy books and pictures books, that are great to read just for a day if you forgot your book.

I choose to share this conference because it’s one that looks like a dud. The student forgot his book. How did I help him out with it? Well, if I consider the book, the reading, and the reader, then in this case I’m focusing just on the reader. I want to help Ryan as a reader develop his habit of bringing his book to school every day.

To recap:

I assess the reader’s current status and figure out the purpose of the conference.

instruct the reader based on his need. Can I help him decode the page he’s on? Choose his next book? Relate this scene to our shared readings?

Lastly, I hook the reader back into the reading. Will I check in at the end of class and see how far he’s progressed? Ask him to jot down examples of the writer’s voice showing through? Review the answer to a specific question I posed.

The typical lesson structure works because it gives us a general framework that we can use to improvise. Flipping that structure allows me to use conferences to move readers forward.

How do you approaches conferences? Do you have any favorite questions? Share in the comments.

Writing and the Energy to Teach

This was post was inspired by a session at NerdCampNJ on teacher bloggers.  Go check out two of the other teacher blogs, written by Ms. Monica Crudele and Mr. Jeff Krapels

Sometimes people ask me how I have the energy to write a weekly post while teaching full time. Without trying it, people assume that it takes more time and energy to write and teach than it does to teach.

Those people are right about the time–I can’t make more of that. But, they are wrong about the energy.

Writing about teaching is one of the biggest sources of energy that I get from my profession. It’s right up there, second only to the energy from kids engaged in learning. So, writing gives me the energy to teach and teaching gives me the energy to write.

It goes some like this:

Continue reading

Close Your Tabs: Ideas for Better Digital Fitness

As we adapt to our digital world, skills of mindfulness and focus become increasingly important. Many, as I argued last week, seem to believe that multitasking is a prized skill. We rarely stop to consider the effect that our perpetually connected life is having on our physical and social health.

But, I’d like to suggest that a new responsibility for educators, and certainly parents, is to teach habits of digital health. These will be the physical and mental habits that allow us to interact with our digital world, without having our physical selves and our social lives suffer.

Just as an abundance of calories in the Western world has led to obesity and a subsequent explosion in the nutrition and exercise industry, an abundance of information now requires a set of skills that allow us to manage the quality and quantity of the information we consume. This is our digital fitness.

The word fitness seems more appropriate than, for example, nutrition, because it involves a lot of doing, similar to how are physical fitness relies not just on diet, but on the doing of physical exercise.

Here are a few ways that educators can maintain their digital fitness, and maybe, while we are working on these habits, we can begin to introduce and teach our students about these same ideas.

Tab Overload

Be mindful of how many tabs you have open. If you can’t count them quickly, there are probably too many open. This sounds trivial, but it is a way of maintaining mindfulness about your use of technology and staying away from those black holes of Googling/YouTubing/Facebooking that we are inclined to do.

Cut off the source

Try removing one social media app from  your phone. If that works out well, try removing all of them. I’ve found that every time I do this, it works well for a few weeks, and then I make an excuse to gradually let one back in.

Revert to “dumb phone” days

If you want to go big, turn off the ability to search the Internet on your smart phone. On the iPhone, for example, you can do this by going to Setting>General>Restrictions, then checking “Safari.” Just like that, your phone is back to being, well, a phone again.

Save your conversations

Put your phone completely out of sight while having important conversations. Sure, putting it on silent is polite, and turning it off is a great next step. This study shows that just the SIGHT of a cell phone in a room ruins the quality of our face-to-face conversations. And you thought you were able to listen just as well to someone (“yea, uh huh, uh huh”), while scrolling on your device.

Conference through the chatter

Practice holding a conversation with a student, and not allowing other students to interrupt you. This is one that is so hard for me. While conducting a reading/writing conference, or having an after-class conversation, students are always interrupting or saying “Mr. Dawson” as another student and I talk. A great practice of focus, in general, is to maintain focus on the student with whom your currently talking, showing both the students you’re in conversation with and the interrupting student that you are devoting your attention one one thing at a time.

It’s important to remember how much of a frontier we’re on, how much of a revolutionary time we are existing in. It’s ignorant to believe that the role of educators and education won’t have to adapt along with it.

You can’t improve a whole system without beginning with its parts. We, as educators with our own digital fitness regimens, are the parts.

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A robot helped me write this…(and it can help your students, too)

The Uber for writing teachers

What if you had a personal writing teacher on call?  Someone to look at all of your emails, letters, proposals, articles and documents? Thanks to WriteLab, a new application developed by people at Stanford, this is closer than you think.

The idea is simple: plug your draft into WriteLab, and you have suggestions to improve your writing within seconds.

The suggestions fall under seven categories:


“Teach the writer, then teach the writing”

You’ll notice that spelling, grammar and usage are absent from the list above. This is why WriteLab is so fascinating. It doesn’t help to ensure that your writing is correct, it helps you to make your writing sound better and more clear.

The suggestions that WriteLab makes are helpful, but it’s not the isolated improvement that makes this application powerful. It’s the facilitation of mindfulness, the way that taking suggestions, considering their validity and deciding whether to take them or not can help writers grow.

When hearing about WriteLab, I was skeptical. Technology is advanced. Yes. But the subtleties in language that result in good writing are complex, and it seems unlikely that an algorithm will be able to actually give me suggestions about my word choice, clarity, fluency and even sound. Yet, after trying Writelab, I’m convinced that it’s a helpful resource.

It’s utility lies in the fact that it doesn’t do the work for you, but offers suggestions that require you to revisit your sentences, analyze your writing and decide whether or not you’d like to take the feedback or stick with your original choice.

And that sounds like the same thing that a good writing teacher does, now that I think of it.

How I think WriteLab could expand and improve:

  • Include a “reflect on your choices” pop-up that writers could use at the end of the process
  • Change the buttons. Some of the suggestions are helpful, but not worthy of addressing. Maybe something like: “Changed it” “left it” and “thanks for the tip” might resonate with students.
  • Make the writing guide more prominent. There’s a little book icon next to each suggestion that takes users to a writing guide, but a more prominent link might be useful.
  • If a writer makes a lot of the same choices, display a pop-up or even more prominent message with something like, “We’ve noticed seven places where you can be more concise. Would you like to watch a short video on how to do this?”
  • Have a teacher dashboard where writing teachers can view the most common types of suggestions made, taken and ignored. (They may actually have this, I’m not sure.)

How I’ll use WriteLab in my classroom:

Students learn best when I get out of the way of their learning. WriteLab is a tool that can help me facilitate independent learning without imposing too much of my own subjectivity and writing style on students.

When using this in class, I plan on demonstrating the tool to students, maybe having a student try it out in front of the class, then leaving it as an option for students who want to improve their writing style. This will be a great help to the students who enjoy it, but might become a chore to the students who would rather conference with me first or work on their writing entirely independently.

That said, all students may benefit from the process of putting their writing into WriteLab and then reflecting on the experience. Students could write a draft, enter it into WriteLab, then go through the process of accepting or rejecting the suggestions made. After that, the students could look back at the log of advice given, and write a reflection on why the students made their revision decisions.

That’s metacognitive thinking, mindfulness and independent learning facilitated by technology. That’s how I want to use technology in my classroom.

There are some broader implications here

Some teachers fear being replaced by technology. I know it. They may not admit it, and they might not even consciously think it, but when they see tools like WriteLab, which can do some of the work that a human does, it creates an uneasy feeling.  Dealing with this is exemplary of a larger shift in mindset that all educators must undergo in our world of emerging powerful technology.

Before, we had to deliver content. Now, YouTube, Wikipedia and Google can do that. Before, we had to manage all of our students’ work. Now, Google Classroom can do that. Before, we had to have the whole class working on the same thing at the same time, so that we could teach them all and know what everyone was doing. Now, students can teach themselves with sites like Khan Academy and EdPuzzle, so what is the teacher’s role?

The teacher now has to get out of the way of student learning by creating the conditions for learning and inspiration. Now, a teacher must be there to guide students towards independent and collaborative discovery, yet still be ready to jump in at the right moment when the student cannot do something on his or her own, or with the help of peers.

This is an incredible opportunity. Let’s go back to the example of WriteLab. If a writing teacher can teach students to thoughtfully run their drafts through this application and make decisions about writing style, then the teacher has just freed up some time to focus more on the depth of a student’s ideas, the persuasiveness of a student’s evidence, and hopefully, the value that the final product will deliver to a real-life reader.

So, education is moving the same way that our larger economy is going. More and more tasks are being automated and digitally outsourced. This is a threat to those who cling to an old way or an opportunity to invest time and attention towards new higher levels of thinking that students and teachers couldn’t get to as often before, because there simply wasn’t enough time.


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How to teach writing by doing less and trusting more

The English teacher sits down with a stack of essays, coffee on the left and red pen to the right. She leafs through the stack, finds one that looks promising, and begins to read.

Suddenly, the realization hits: What am I looking for? How do I grade this?

The grades slapped on student papers will surprise many students, because no criteria were set. The learning has stopped and the conversation is over.

This teacher represents the first of four scenarios I’ve enacted, observed or experienced when it comes to students, teachers and writing assignments:

    1. Students get the directions for an essay. They submit a draft. They receive a grade, number or letter, at the top. There may be evaluative comments on the paper, too. Case closed.
    2. Students receive directions and a rubric. They submit a draft. They receive the assignment back with a rubric covered with circled boxes. There may be comments on the paper.

(Some may see a difference between one and two, but I find that they have the same effect: they evaluate students’ abilities but don’t promote writing growth.)

3. Students receive directions and a rubric. The teacher collects the drafts, and provides formative feedback. Students use the feedback to revise, and re-submit for a grade.

(This is an improvement, but still teacher-driven, carrot and stick. The students address the teacher’s comments, ignoring the rubric and learning objectives. The comments are the standards that they are judging their work off of, not the rubric, because pleasing the teacher will lead to a good grade)

Here’s the fourth option, which takes the most planning but gets results.

The major difference: it relies on the teacher trusting the students’ ability to know good writing when they see it.

4. Students receive an assignment. Earlier in the year, my students wrote editorials, so I’ll use this for an example.

First we read mentor texts and discuss the style and structure of editorials.

Eventually students write drafts, and I collect the work to provide feedback. I focus the feedback specifically on the the lessons that we’ve done in class leading up to the writing of these drafts. I ignore many small errors in spelling, grammar and usage, so that my feedback is focused on the skills we’ve addressed in class.

The students revise. They don’t realize it, but they’re revising based on the rubric. The feedback I gave them was based on the lessons that we’ve done, which will later be materialized on the rubric used to grade the final products.

Next, students bring in printed, revised papers. Here, I use read around groups (RAGS), an activity from Kelly Gallagher’s Teaching Adolescent Writers. Before the activity begins, we review the rubric criteria as a class.

Let’s say the criteria are:

Content (the quality of arguments and evidence, and the acknowledgement and response to counterarguments)
Style (the quality and clarity of “voice.” This is a nebulous one, but the concept was discussed extensively in our study of mentor texts.)
Structure (The use of intentional paragraphing to organize and emphasize ideas.)

Also on the rubric are four column headers: “Exceeds Standards,” “Meets Standards,” “Approaches Standards” and “Doesn’t Address”  It looks this like:


Then, the RAGS begin. Students remove their names from their papers using markers or scissors. They form groups of 4-5 and one person collects the papers. Each group passes its group of papers to another group to begin the activity. Then, each students receives one paper and spends one minute reading the paper. At my call, students pass the papers to the right. The activity continues until each student in the group has read each paper.

Students have 2-3 minutes to choose the best paper. I find that the word “best,” though vague, is clear enough to allow students to identify the quality writing in the class.

When students have decided, I note the names of the best papers, and each group gives its papers to another group. The activity continues until all students have read all papers (except their own.)

The votes are tallied. Every time I’ve done the activity, there are a handful of papers that receive the majority of the votes. I usually select the top three papers to use as models for next class.

Before the next class, I make a copy of the model papers and and the blank rubrics.

We have a class discussion about which papers best utilize the skills on the rubric. Often their is some overlap of opinion, which is beneficial for students to see and talk about.

We decide on if we think the papers do some things that all students should be able to do–Meets Standards–and if the papers do some things that likely few students will be able to do–Exceeds Standards.

The students describe what the writers have done to meet or exceed the standards for the three categories.

At this point the students have:

  • Experienced lessons on various writing skills
  • Received feedback focused on those skills
  • Revised their writing based on the feedback
  • Read 20-30 similar papers of various quality
  • Discussed and selected the best writing
  • Written about the qualities of the best writing

Now they have ideas about what makes a good editorial. Students revise their work. I suggest changes based on what the mentor texts do that the students don’t do, or what the mentor texts might do better than the students.

Yes, at the end, the papers are graded…but the trust placed in the students to know good writing when they see it facilitates more student learning than other systems I’ve used.

They receive a letter grade corresponding to the mastery level ratings they received on the rubric. This is an imperfect process, because it involves some averaging and eventually some judgement calls on which letter grade the student deserves. I hope to improve that by using a standards-based grading system this year.

While the stuff above describes very specific class procedures, it is also part of a larger teaching mindset: get out of the way of student learning.

The best way for students to improve as readers, writers, speakers, listeners, and thinkers, is to create the conditions for them to build on what they already know and what they can teach each other. It’s important to ask: am I needed right now? Or can they do this on their own?

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How Learning to Code Became Learning to Learn

This post originally appeared on Edutopia.

Jane is my student, and she loves stories.  Janes loves movies, she loves narrative video games, she loves telling stories to friends and hearing stories read aloud. But Jane struggles to write and read.   She loves to experience stories but lacks the skills that make stories possible.

So, I talk with other teachers and learn what works in math or history.  I scaffold assignments with and check-in frequently.  I use Jane’s interests to find relevant books and topics.   Jane might not see herself as a reader and writer, but I believe in the growth mindset: with the right strategies and lots of work, she can improve.

Until recently, I was like Jane, but with technology.  I used tech tools all day with little knowledge of their workings.  And, despite my interactions with Jane I had a typical fixed-mindset explanation for this: “I’m an English teacher. My brain doesn’t work that way.”   What I was really saying was, “I forget how to be a beginner.”

A year ago, though, I became a beginner, an apprentice, a struggling learner.  I decided to learn to code.

Immediately, the experience became less about designing websites, and more about experiencing the growth mindset, improving confidence with technology, and learning that failure is part of the process.

The Lessons

Learning to code was a reminder of the need to ask for help.  Teachers praise the growth mindset, recognizing the benefits for student learning. But how often do teachers live this philosophy by collaborating across grade-levels or departments?  Rarely. Teachers have our own fixed mindsets and are often reluctant to ask others about gaps in our knowledge.

My experience: In order to learn to code, I started from zero.  I quickly developed a strategy and list of resources. Instead of sticking to one course or book, I found multiple communities of coders who answered questions from beginners.  I was able to fill gaps in my knowledge, but only by asking for help.

The Resources: Stackoverflow and Quora are communities for asking questions and getting help from others.  If you decide to learn to code, these will be your best friends.

The takeaway:  Teach students to visit multiple sources to fill gaps in knowledge.  Demonstrate reaching out to experts through Twitter.  Facilitate peer feedback sessions and have students consider multiple perspectives on their work.  Asking for help is hard, but it’s a priceless part of the learning process.

Learning to code improves confidence with technology in the classroom.

My experience: when learning to code, things get “broken.”  The app crashes.  The web page won’t load.  No matter how broken things look, there’s nearly always a solution (except for those few times I scrapped everything and started from scratch.

The resources: Dive into something new like a blogging platform for students, try a backchannel discussion during class, or some of the fantastic (but somewhat complex to set up) Google add-ons from New Visions Cloud Lab.

The takeaway: Learning requires diving in head first without a fear of failure.  Try a new tech tool to solve a problem, even if you’re not totally comfortable using it. Invite students to help figure out how to use new apps or platforms, and when things break, consider it a challenge not a catastrophe.

Learning to code reminds teachers what makes learning fun, challenging, and authentic.

My experience: Each week, I reflect on three questions in my notebook: “what’s working? what’s not working? and what next?”  As my coding skills increased, my goal became creating a blog app to use for these reflections. I stayed motivated because I had a project to complete.

The Resources: I used One Month to learn the web framework Ruby on Rails because their courses are project-based. If you have zero experience coding,  start with one of the project-based courses on Codeacademy.

The takeaway: The process of learning to code reminded me of the importance of making school authentic.  When students do or make something real, they stop focusing on their inabilities and start looking for answers to their questions.

Though I approached this challenge hoping to learn a new set of computer skills, I came away with lessons about learning that I believe any teacher can gain by throwing themselves into something where there a beginner.

It’s been about one year since I started learning to code, and I’m not ready to build the next Twitter.  The next time a student like Jane comes along, though, not only will I have a set of strategies to share, but I’ll be able to say, “I know how you feel, believe me.”


Coaches don’t keep score during practice (why do writing teachers?)

Grading.  This is an area of teaching I constantly struggle with.  How to grade, what to grade, how many points is this worth?

Feedback is important, but it seems that grades often get in the way of feedback and learning, instead of promoting them.

In his book Teaching Adolescent Writers, Kelly Gallagher talks about using a writing coach mindset in order to have students do more writing practice and get more feedback, without teachers doing more grading.

Here’s a simple Google Drawing that shows the 3:1 philosophy, part of the writing coach mindset.

Enjoy and share.

P.S. — This image comes from the guide I’m working on called Simplifying Feedback.  If you’d like me to send it to you, enter your email in the box on the left.

These ideas are originally created by Kelly Gallagher in his book, Teaching Adolescent Writers

These ideas are originally created by Kelly Gallagher in his book, Teaching Adolescent Writers.